Who will speak out for South Asian survivors of sexual violence against women?

In the wake of the tragic murder of Sarah Everard, public debate on sexual violence against women has boomed. Like hundreds of thousands of others, the media coverage sparked my own recollection of when I was a victim of sexual violence. In this post, I will share my own reflections on the tragic murder of Sarah Everard. I will also share my own stark experience of sexual violence. As someone from a South Asian background, I feel there are droves of women out there to whom even such expression is a distant luxury. So, for them, as well as all others, this goes out specifically to you.

33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard was doing something which every person should have a right to safely do. She was walking home from a friend’s house, along a fairly busy road, around 9.30pm. It was hardly the dead of the night. She was walking in sight of oncoming traffic, as demonstrated by numerous sightings. Doorbell camera footage on Poynders Road, the dashcam of a passing police car and CCTV on a bus all attest to this. She had been on the phone to her boyfriend, whom she had informed of her whereabouts and route. However, the natural precautions millions of women are forced to take, in Sarah’s case were not enough.

Although the saying goes that a person is innocent until proven guilty, all signs point to Metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens being the perpetrator. The reasons, the motives and the details behind the attack remain sketchy. Another instance of sexual violence against women, or is it something more? Police investigations were quick to describe the incident as a “stranger attack,” after rapid forensic investigations on electronic devices. However, and more importantly, I found myself particularly moved by what seems like a national outpouring. A national outpouring of voices addressing the subject of violence against women.

Despite a heavy-handed police response to the Sarah Everard vigil originally organised by “Reclaim the Streets” in Clapham Common, the Government has been swift to act. A meeting of the Crime and Justice Task Force was arranged to address violence against women and girls. Consequently, Downing Street proclaimed it would be taking “immediate steps” to give women “further reassurance.” Some of the announced measures include the provision of £25 million for improved street lighting and CCTV

coverage. Additionally, as part of Project Vigilant, Safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins announced that undercover police officers would work in the night-time economy, relaying intelligence to uniformed officers about suspicious or predatory behaviour.

However, while welcoming the increased vocality in support of women’s safety, I was reminded of the time I was attacked. For me, thanks to my religio-cultural background, even being a victim would have robbed me of my life, had “anything actually” happened. It was a cold winter evening and I was at college. Either 16 or 17, at the time. As dictated by my Muslim South Asian parents, I was dressed appropriately, follow all instructions and advice. Wearing a long coat, with my collar pulled up high to avoid the cold, only part of my face and head were exposed. Like Sarah, I had taken the precautions I was told to. I wasn’t wearing anything provocative and I had been vigilant, as I left college and made my way to the quiet train station, to take the long ride home.

On the way to the train station there was a petrol station, with barely much else on the route from college. Suddenly, a man hurried towards me. Running, to catch up with me. He told me he had been watching me and started trying to talk to me. I became extremely unnerved and had no idea what to do. I rushed towards the petrol station. Not knowing what to say, what to do or how to get help, I spent some time inside. Once I felt the coast was clear, I went outside again. I gathered myself and sat on a wall outside the petrol station. After a few minutes, I thought the man had gone, so I dusted myself down and proceeded towards the train station.

This station was small, isolated and quiet. There were only two platforms, barely any other passengers and quite poorly lit. I was scared and nervous, but I just wanted to get home. I approached the gates and made my way inside, I found myself walking alone along the path to the platform. All of a sudden, a hand came over my mouth and I realised, he was back again. I was crying, wailing, shrieking, all to no avail and his firm grip muffled them all. By then, he was dragging me along the path. Somehow, I managed to scream out, “I’ll do anything, just let me go!” As soon as his grip loosened, I ran off, back to the safety of the petrol station.

I was a sobbing wreck. Hysterical. Barely making any sense. Luckily, the staff at the petrol station called the police. I was taken to the local police station and asked to give a statement. Soon after, they contacted my parents to inform them of what happened and asked if anyone could come to pick me up. However, with no one from home available to do so, they were forced to drop me back off home. Then, and this is where my whole recollection is leading to, my parents asked me: “Did *anything actually* happen?” In a clear allusion to sexual violence, they were visibly relieved when I replied in the negative. We never spoke about the incident again.

The point I’m trying to make is that: Sarah Everard’s tragic murder has caused shockwaves, reigniting public debate on violence against women. The eye of public scrutiny is on the lawmakers, the Government, and the upholders of the law the police. However, for decades these very institutions have been failing women from BAME. Countless studies and numerous pieces of research demonstrate this. Yet, very few people seem interested in addressing this. For me, institutional racism runs deep and we, as South Asian women, need to speak up.

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Why are BAME communities hesitant to take coronavirus vaccines?

While research continues on how and why SARS-CoV-2 is wreaking havoc on BAME communities, various figures make for stark reading. A report published in September showed that black people are at twice the risk of death than white people. Similarly, people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage are 1.7 times as likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts. Despite failures at each juncture of the crisis, the British government’s vaccination programme has hurtled at a world-beating pace. However, despite their higher risk of death, figures have shown that these same BAME communities have been hesitant to take the vaccine. A recent poll commissioned by the Royal Society of Public Health found that only 57% of BAME respondents would be willing to take the coronavirus vaccine, compared to 79% of white people.

Why the hesitance?

– “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”

The study into the effects of syphilis left untreated in black men between 1932 and 1972 has left a major impact on popular vaccine uptake. Despite the widespread availability of penicillin, from 1947 onwards, subjects of the study were treated as guinea pigs for decades. More examples of such medical racism abound and are often cited by black people hesitant to take vaccines.

– Religious Concerns over Ingredients

Various surveys have shown that people of faith have concerns over the compatibility of vaccines’ ingredients with their beliefs. Muslim respondents have expressed concerns over vaccines containing alcohol and pork derived products. Also, Hindus have expressed concerns over vaccines containing bovine ingredients.

– Social Media Conspiracy Theories

With its widespread accessibility and the unchecked nature of its information dissemination, social media has also contributed to vaccine hesitation. If QAnon almost triggered a coup in America, what hope do historically disadvantaged minorities have, when it comes to a topic as complex as vaccination?

Hijabi Bhabhi’s Recommendations

To the Government: DO A HELL OF A LOT MORE.

It’s clear, from various government documents, that it was known that BAME communities would feel hesitant to take coronavirus vaccines. With deep-seated perceptions of historical medical racism, you’ve simply not done enough to counter them. Gradually increasing campaigns targeting BAME communities would, at the very least, show concern for them.

To the media: BUCK UP.

While the Black Lives Matter movement has had an impact on BAME representation in the media, again, I feel a lot more needs to be done. Social media has proven a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories. The coronavirus pandemic, and minorities’ hesitance to accept perfectly safe vaccines, have shown how important trust in traditional media is for public health.

To BAME communities: WAKE UP.

If someone is offering to save your life and those of your loved ones, isn’t it at least worth exploring your options? What matters more, correcting historical wrongs by leaping under a bus of your own volition? Or, and many of you won’t like me saying this, is dogma more important than thousands of lives?

The Case of Muslim and Pakistani Child Sexual Exploitation Gangs across the United Kingdom

The issue of child sexual exploitation (CSE) perpetrated by gangs in numerous towns across the United Kingdom appeared in headlines around a decade ago. Largely Muslim and specifically Pakistani origin men were involved in abusing and exploiting white, English girls, with one victim as young as twelve. For me, and this may not be politically correct, but there were too many commonalities between cases separated by time and place, to not do some calling out! Of course, as a campaigner for women’s voices and a British Asian Muslim woman, I feel obliged to speak out. Even if all I can do about it is condemn what happened and encourage further discussion and open debate.  

The far-right, led by Tommy Robinson, wickedly and unsurprisingly used these headlines as a fascist rallying call. The establishment, i.e., the government, local government and government agencies, was failed by various police forces’ misplaced political correctness and male-dominated councils’ complacency. In a most extreme case, in my eyes, a police officer and councillor were proactively involved in looking the other way. By negotiating the return of a girl from her abuser, the police officer and councillor promised the abuser immunity from prosecution, for the crimes they knew he was engaged in. Even as I write this, I can’t believe it. 

Another voice in the conversation was Quilliam, a Muslim-run anti-extremism think-tank, with close links to Tony Blair and the anti-radicalism agenda of his government. In a report which was vociferously challenged, Quilliam authors claimed “84% of grooming gang members are Asian.” Dr Ella Cockbain, lecturer in Security and Crime Science at UCL, shunned the reports claims, describing it as “a case study in bad science.” Later government reports contextualised the proportion of Pakistani Muslim offenders compared to any other ethnicity or social category, unequivocally arguing there was no link between race, religion and sexual abuse. 

Looking at the geographical distribution of the cases, it staggers me how many places were affected by similar phenomena. Young girls from broken families and in social care, plied with drugs and alcohol, and abused by multiple men. Takeaway owners, taxi drivers and even some men described as “pillars of the community,” were left free to abuse young girls. Although some justice has been achieved, the fact that convictions are still occurring go to show how there’s a long way to go. Furthermore, numerous reports have shown scandalous remiss from local government and associated bodies, including social services and the police. 

As a British Asian Muslim woman, brought up in a conservative Muslim socio-familial milieu, I see certain behaviours displayed by the child abusers resonating with some belief-based notions accepted as religious dogma. Firstly, for example, the topic of underage sex. According to strict interpretations of the Sharia, a Muslim man can marry (and then have sex with) a girl under the age of sixteen, as long as she has passed puberty. It may not be commonplace, but it is enshrined in dogma. The Prophet Mohammed married Aishah when she was either nine or fourteen. I’m not saying that makes all Muslims paedophiles, but the notion does exist in religious dogma. 

Secondly, the existence of a dehumanising dichotomy, in other words, an “us” and “them” narrative. A narrative of Muslims and non-Muslims, believers and infidels. Belief, and equally disbelief, are incredibly important tenets in Islam. According to the most extreme interpretations, as held by the likes of ISIS, non-Muslim women are fair game, to be used as one pleases. Of course, most Muslims would be absolutely horrified at the thought. But, theologically and dogmatically, a believer is superior to a non-believer. How this manifests in practice, depends on interpretation. However, as a Muslim, I can categorically say that I’ve witnessed this dogmatic prejudice play out in more contexts than I think one could imagine! It’s a mentality. 

Of all the voices contributing to this debate that I reviewed for the purposes of this piece, I found Baroness Sayeeda Warsi’s to be the most pertinent to my particular concerns. Despite being Britain’s most senior Muslim politician and the first Muslim woman to be in the Cabinet, the nuance of her concerns demonstrates her understanding of what is a very complex reality on the ground. In an interview in 2012 with the Evening Standard, Baroness Warsi summarised the issue I seek to raise very succinctly: “There is a small minority of Pakistani men who believe that white girls are fair game and we have to be prepared to say that. You can only start solving a problem if you acknowledge it first.” 

In addition to ideas and beliefs related to underage sex and attitudes towards non-Muslims, there’s also the belief in polygamy. According to all Muslim schools of thought, men are allowed up to four wives at one time. Although this is not very common, and I’m certainly not claiming this belief translates into child sexual exploitation, I do believe it helps contributes to attitudes allowing some men to feel they can get away with playing away from home. For me, from my personal experience, this leeway given to males and male children compared to females, in the family home, can contribute to misogynistic attitudes. For example, while I was expected to learn to cook and clean, my brothers’ gender gave them a free pass. Here, I’m not blaming a belief in polygamy for child sexual exploitation, or the fact I was made to cook and clean. That’s ridiculous. Instead, I am saying that there are a number of religious beliefs whose extreme interpretation have real-world consequences. 

Referring to the child sexual exploitation gangs operating in Rotherham, Rochdale, Bradford, Telford, Derby, Huddersfield, Newcastle, Oxford, Halifax and Peterborough, Baroness Warsi put it best: “This small minority [of Pakistani men] who see women as second-class citizens, and white women probably as third-class citizens, are to be spoken out against.” Although for the purposes of this discussion, I’ve discussed some religious beliefs, I don’t think for one second it’s a purely religious or race-based issue. However, with all the political correctness that has surrounded the topic, I feel there’s no harm in calling for a difficult but open debate, right? 

The Appearance of Hijab in Pornography

When assessing public discourse on the appearance of hijab in pornography, one name particularly stands out. Born in Lebanon, to conservative Catholic parents, Sarah Joe Chamoun is now better known as Mia Khalifa. Mia Khalifa’s meteoric rise to prominence occurred via the world’s most popular free adult site, Porn Hub. There, shortly after the release of her most controversial shoot, in which she performed while wearing a headscarf style hijab, she became the most searched-for performer. This simple act of wearing the hijab propelled Mia to global recognition and prominence. Soon, militants from various terrorist organisations based in the Middle East issued death threats to the then 21-year-old. One particularly harrowing threat featured an image of the performer’s home. Following this meteoric rise, Mia left the industry and has mostly recently spoken out against it fiercely, claiming exploitation. However, despite turning her back on the industry, Mia Khalifa remains synonymous with hijab in pornography. In this extended post, I will attempt to make some sense of this phenomenon. As a Muslim adult performer myself, I would like to conclude with some personal reflections.

The image of the veiled, exotic Middle Eastern woman has fascinated Western imaginations, since the earliest days of orientalist expansionism. A mythical, mysterious and alien creature, her veil was considered a form of bondage to a stifling patriarchy. Denied a public image, basic rights and freedoms, this Muslim woman thus existed only in servitude. Whatever else it may not have been, exoticism and submissiveness were integral assumed qualities. Fast forward a few centuries to 2014 and we have Mia Khalifa’s Mia Khalifa is Cumming to Dinner, the explosion of her popularity and the propulsion of the “hijab porn” genre to prominence in public discourse.

Reflecting on her experiences in the industry, last summer, Mia returned to the public spotlight. In an interview with BBC’s HARDtalk, Mia described feeling forced to do the hijab scene: “Intimidation – I was scared. I knew that if I said no, it would. You know, they are not going to force you to do it, at that point that’s rape. No one is going to force you to have sex. But I was still scared.” She also added that she did indeed realise that she was doing something provocative: “I verbatim told them, ‘You guys are going to get me killed,’” she told HARDtalk host Stephen Sackur. Following Mia’s rise to prominence, Pakistani-American Onai Malik appeared as Nadia Ali in Women in the Middle East in 2015. Produced by PornFidelity, a company owned by husband-wife performer couple Ryan and Kelly Madison, the film features various vignettes depicting Middle Eastern women in a variety of stereotyped roles.

Speaking on her wearing of hijab during hardcore sexual scenes, Onai said at the time: “Growing up I’d hear rumors like, “That girl’s a slut, don’t let the scarf fool you.” I kept those scenarios in mind. If a hijabi were to be horny and wanting to fuck how would she fuck? I bring that to life on camera and people get mad about it because they want to keep it modest.” As part of the same interview, with the Daily Beast, she added: “I am doing porn as a Pakistani woman for the liberal movement, bringing women in a scarf or a head wrap to the camera. Now, it’s no longer behind closed doors. I don’t bring religion into porn. I’ve asked directors to take the word “Muslim” out of porn titles before. For me it’s about the Pakistani culture, not the religion.”

It’s interesting to note, these productions were released at a time when “the West,” meaning North America and both Eastern and Western Europe were experiencing considerable political upheaval. In 2013, Donald Trump’s political aspirations began to take shape. At the time, they most succinctly manifested themselves in the “Make America Great Again” campaign which was announced in June 2015. Of course, a key part of the campaign was its outrageous subtextual promulgation of xenophobia, with immigrants and Muslims particularly singled out. As the most recent stark images from the Capitol riot show, the Trump rallying call at that time has since proven extremely powerful.

Further afield, a major migration crisis was in full swing. As the Islamic State group terrorised swathes of Syria and Iraq, Turkey played spoiler, ferreting helpless civilians across the Mediterranean Sea towards European shores. At the peak of the crisis, around two thousand people sank in the sea. A particularly powerful image was that of the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, face down on a Turkish beach, whose family were fleeing violence in Kurdish areas of Syria. The influx of an unprecedented numbers of refugees stirred polarised political debate across Europe. Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders reverberated Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, across the Atlantic. This also coincided with the lead up to the EU referendum in the United Kingdom, which proved to be another very polarising and divisive subject of public discourse.

Thus, Mia Khalifa and Nadia Ali took their fateful steps of wearing the hijab during hardcore sexual scenes at a time when xenophobia had taken root in public discourse and had caused major political division. Here, some interesting pieces of anecdotal evidence prove extremely telling, when it comes to how the appearance of the hijab in pornography was received. According to data published by PornHub, during Donald Trump’s D-list Republican National Conference, searches related to Arab and Muslim porn, coming from Cleveland where the convention was hosted, increased by 204 per cent. Figures from Germany and the UK both suggest an increased interest in Arab, Muslim and “refugee” porn, around the time of critical political junctures. According to data from XHamster, searches related to these categories currently number around one million per month. Compared to figures from 2015, this shows an exponential rise in interest. Similarly, a spike in searches for these categories in the UK was observed during the Brexit referendum in June 2016 and the summer election of 2017.

The global furore surrounding hijab in Western pornography, through Mia Khalifa’s rise to prominence, coincided with increased public interest in the Middle East and the emergence of xenophobic voices in public discourse. This trend was also observed in Europe, where searches spiked in various countries, around divisive political junctures. Ultimately, the hijab represents a Muslim woman’s modesty, the violation of which is an extremely evocative taboo. In a sexual context, this may be no more provocative than the images of nuns and priests commonplace in pornography. However, in a broader historical context, it does raise issues relating to negative stereotypes.

For me, the words of sexual scientist and cultural anthropologist Professor Jakob Pastotter ring the truest. Speaking to InfoMigrants, the academic described the phenomenon in this way: “Sexuality is a means to familiarize yourself with things that are alien to you. By approaching new phenomena from a sexual angle, we get to understand these things better.” In final conclusion, it seems to me that the appearance of the hijab in Western pornography went to show how far this otherwise “exoticised” garment was accepted for what it is. By defiling the hijab for the viewing pleasure of taboo-seekers, I believe pornography inadvertently accepted it for the symbol of modesty Muslims believe it to be.

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